First things first. AG Rojas is 24. Not that age should be relevant. But, well it is. Because his work is so startlingly well developed you have to wonder from what bank of experience it’s been drawn.
Rojas’ videos for the likes of Gil Scott-Heron and Spiritualized offer microscopically considered glimpses into the lives of marginal and marginalized characters. Painted with dignity and filmic poetry Rojas manages the near impossible task of conveying the essence of his subjects through a deep connection with them, rather than distanced observation of them.
His most recent promo, Sixteen Saltines for Jack White, envisions a world overrun by youths freed from the authority of adults. Similar themes run through his forthcoming short, Crown, which is currently making waves on the festival circuit. 10 minutes long and with only one word (open), Crown shows Rojas taking another cinematic step with his work.
How old were you when you moved to California from Barcelona?
I was seven years old when my family moved to California. LA is my home. It’s where I made the relationships that became the characters that inhabit my films, and where I refined the visual worlds that I like to explore.
The thing that’s really interesting about you work is that you manage to tread the line of documentary observation without turning the camera into a tool that aestheticises or fetishises a certain lifestyle or age group. What’s the key to achieving that do you think?
I spend a lot of time building relationships with the people I put in my videos. I make sure that the situations I put them in are relatable in some way to their real lives. That way, they let their guard down and don’t over-think the scene, which is how we’re able to achieve natural, true performances. It’s also about keeping the practical elements of filmmaking as small as possible – which translates into having small crews, and little to no big lights. Locations are also extremely important to me. We keep the art direction as minimal as we can to achieve authenticity, so we’ll spend a lot of time scouting, especially around the character’s actual neighborhood.
Whereas your earlier shorts and promos focus more on youth it seems like your recent projects have shifted into the space of marginal characters – their ages seem less relevant than the situations they’re in. Do you think that’s more about you maturing as a person or about a shift in the themes you’re interested in?
Exploring youth in film has always interested me. There’s a number of reasons – the vulnerability found in the performances, the way their faces and style are in transition, and also simply because their energy on set is contagious and conducive to spontaneity and improvisation. I don’t think it’s something I’ll ever stop exploring because it’s so rich, though the way I approach it might evolve somehow. Marginalized characters are obviously fascinating in and of their own, but once you begin to fabricate situations based on their lives, that’s when you get something special.
There’s a certain mood of aimlessness to the characters you show – not in the sense that you seem critical of their lives but rather that their lives seem literally pointless. It feels like they’re not exactly having fun, more filling time, trying to alleviate boredom. Would you say that’s a fair observation?
I think most of the people in my videos have a goal, however small it may seem. In the video for Gil Scott-Heron, the boxer is trying to survive living in the projects with her young child while also balancing her violent career. Similarly, in Hey Jane, it’s a story of survival in the midst of a completely deteriorating world. There is always some sort of conflict, and though there may not be a clear resolution, the characters and their stories are defined by the end of the video.
What do you usually shoot on?
My DP Michael Ragen and I enjoy the challenge of manipulating digital filmmaking to achieve the best possible, natural images. Our first jobs were shot on the RED and now we’re shooting mostly on the Alexa. Also, we shoot digitally because then I can afford to have as many takes as I want of people vomiting.
What inspires you? Or where do you look for creative inspiration?
It’s lucky that musicians like my work, because I’m mostly inspired by music. Even when I come up with shorts, like CROWN, the ideas are usually conjured up from listening to music.
How did the idea for the Spiritualized video come about?
This is an example of being completely inspired by the track. The first image that came up in my mind was that of a transvestite walking down a street in Atlanta. It wasn’t necessarily inspired by the lyrics, as much as by the overall tone and atmosphere that Jason created with the song. It so happened that the part when our transvestite is being attacked, the lyrics shift into violence.
What, for you, is your Jack White promo about?
“Sixteen Saltines” is very similar to a 90’s video. It’s a video that you can go in and really try to explain every vignette, but where’s the fun in that? The idea is just to let these wild images live with the track and not over-think it if you don’t want to. If you want to think on it, it’s just my idea of what disenchanted, bored youth would do once all forms of authority have disappeared.
Tell us about Crown – what’s it about and when is it out?
CROWN is the visual culmination built around skate rats in LA. The narrative exists in the same world I’ve created in some of my videos, but I was able to explore some more overtly surreal themes that interest me since I had complete creative control over the film. Right now it’s playing a few festivals like Slamdance and Toronto, but the general release will be in late summer. I’m excited to see the reaction from a larger audience since I already know the reaction of the average festivalgoer: “Huh?”
Spiritualized, Hey Jane
Director: AG Rojas
Production Companies: Caviar (Los Angeles), Somesuch & Co. (London)
Somesuch & Co Executive Producer: Tim Nash
Executive Producers: Jasper Thomlinson, Michael Sagol
Producer: Anna Rau
DP: Michael Ragen
Commissioner: Juliette Larthe